I’ve been getting a lot of questions, lately, from various sources about my au pair experience and I thought I would do a kind of “post au pair year” post to answer a few of your questions! So here it is, the good the bad and the ugly.
One of the questions I get the most is whether or not I “liked” my experience. First off, this is a broad question because asking if I “liked” an entire year of my life is about as easy to answer as if you asked a five year old if they liked the last 24 hours of their life – they probably don’t remember, there were probably good and bad things that happened, but they’re still alive so it’s all good.
The thing is, being an au pair is the same as being in any other work profession – there are good days and there are bad days. The thing that is different, is that you don’t get to leave work when you’re having a bad day. You can’t walk away from your boss, you can’t fake sick days (or even take sick days, in general – I knew several au pairs (myself included) who worked through colds, the flu, and even the chicken pox. That’s right – she didn’t get off from work when she had chicken pox). While being romaticized mentally by many, I would say the most accurate/closest portrayal I’ve ever seen is The Nanny Diaries. It’s no piece of cake, that’s for sure.
The best parts of being an au pair would probably be the same as when you’re working as a nanny – you have A LOT of free time. While some families require for you to work in the morning (taking the kids to school) as well as the afternoon, my au pair family only required that I worked after school, meaning I started work every day at about 3pm (NOTE: Except Wednesdays – which, in France, is a no/half school day – depending on the age of your children). Which means I had time during the day to go out and do things, or just stay in my house and work on projects. This also meant that I was able to come back a little bit later from (the many) weekend trips that I made.
This brings up another really great fact and that is: All au pair families are not the same. These differences can include, but are not limited to:
- Whether you work mornings or just afternoons
- Whether you have a room in the house or separate
- Whether your transportation (public transportation card/card/etc) is paid for
- Whether your communication is paid for – some families will pay for your phone
- Whether your au pair family will have you babysit on weekends
- Whether the family will pay you for working additional days/nights (some don’t)
- Whether your language classes/lessons are paid for
- How much you get paid and how you get paid (direct deposit/cash each week/monthly)
Most of these things didn’t work in my favor with my au pair situation. While I did have weekend freedom, as well as no need to babysit (generally, since there were older kids who could), I didn’t have any additional resources paid for, which did make living a little bit harder, overall (since actual pay only came to 80 euro/week). This is something to REALLY think about/ask about when you’re finding an au pair family. Look at your own personal finances and make sure that things align with what your income will be for the next year of living in a foreign country and make sure that you fill in gaps with your own savings, before the move.
My biggest piece of advice, in general, would be for you to check, double check, Skype, phone call, email and talk to your potential family as much as possible. I would also highly suggest talking to past nannies or au pairs that they’ve had. While I wouldn’t recommend the family that I worked with, I have been asked by other au pairs who were thinking about working for them, and I was able to let them know. Communication is key! This is also a great indicator of how you will be able to communicate once you move there – if your au pair family isn’t willing to communicate with you while you’re abroad that might be an indicator of other underlying problems with the position, which will come up once you actually get there.
I would also say make sure you have a really great support system. The only reason I was able to come out sane, after my time in France was because I had such an amazing support system back at home that was encouraging me, sending me snail mail and Skyping me. Asking your au pair family about whether they know other au pair families in their city, s also a really great way to connect with other au pairs.
When it comes down to it, being in a foreign country is really isolating and can be incredibly lonely (like a whole different level of lonely than I had ever experienced before). Having this support system really CAN make or break your experience. Also – if you know you enjoy living in a city and being active socially don’t take a position in a small town. I know it might seem adventurous, but overall it probably isn’t going to be a good decision. Keep true to yourself, even if the “perfect” family doesn’t come around right away, it’s worth making sure they’re the right family for you, before making the leap.
Maneuvering the realm of being an au pair is an adventure that isn’t for everyone. There are benefits to leaving your comfort zone and striking out in the world, but make sure that you look before you leap. As I always say with any kind of travel, don’t take on something in order to escape something else. Make sure you do your research, and make sure you aren’t settling.